Public enterprises: Are they ‘devils’?


WHEN United Bus Company of Zambia (UBZ) was operating, it was one of the most innefficient transport companies in the region. It used to take two days to get to Mufulira from Lusaka, a distance which now takes about five hours with the private operators but the same distance.
UBZ was finally grounded in 1994 during the infamous privatisation drive brought by the new government then.
During the same period, we had companies like Zambia Airways which was one of the best airlines with no history of accidents.
Zambia had some of the best trained pilots in the world such that some ended up being employed by reputable airlines like British Airways after the airline was grounded in 1995.
By the way, it also had so many assets such as houses in Zambia, America and Europe though we don’t even know how they were disposed of.
The list of public enterprises was very long including the current Zesco which still runs to date.
The question that seeks sober answers is whether public enterprises are ‘devils’ with bottomless pockets? We all have different views and answers but my honest one is that the quality of the public enterprise (PE) is as good as the leadership at that particular time.
The reason for my answer is simple, why is it that Zesco as well as other PEs are still going concerns to date? Ofcourse, I am alive to the fact that seventy percent of the country’s businesses should be in the hands of the private sector but the public sector should also run some businesses.
For instance, it was folly of us Zambians to have completely privatised the mines when we knew very well that eighty percent of the country’s economy depended on them.
I guess we did not think through the process very well before embarking on the privatisation process. Given the opportunity to advise whoever were decision makers then, on behalf of the Zambians, I would have told them to privatise certain mines whose lifespan were almost due and remain with some as cash cows.
An example in mind would be Kabwe Mine; and remain with controlling shares in KCM after restructuring. Honestly, for many of the enterprises all we needed to have done was to restructure them.
We could only have thought of completely privatising after having diversified the economy from mining dependency to other sectors like agriculture, tourism and manufacturing. I find it difficult to mention any country in the world today that does not have public enterprises.
Let us narrow it further to the enterprises that are currently in the hands of Government. In 2008 the government privatised Zamtel and the reasons we were given was that it was a loss-making venture.
They did not tell us why it was making losses, and barely a year after privatising with the same workforce from Zambia, the company turned around and was profitable.
It was a force to reckon with in the communication sector and overnight it was paying better salaries than the market leaders and the services had improved tremendously. We started admiring our own ‘child’ in another home and went for repossession.
Oh my God! As if it was a curse, suddenly the company was in problems again. We seem not to be learning from our mistakes, what kind of people are we? The biggest problem we seem to have as Zambians is the poor attitude and management of our own. Once we are made to be managers of the enterprise, the first thing we want is to chase away qualified staff (baswamashi) and employ puppets who most of the time are ill qualified and are our relatives and bootlickers for misuse of resources.
That is exactly what killed Zambia Airways; if you were a child of an employee from Zambia Airways or Zambia Railways you should be entitled to a free ticket every quarter to Bahamas or Livingstone, meanwhile your parent is drawing a salary.
Watch this space, we have continued even now although we have very qualified engineers, management professionals at Zesco.
That company is a very profitable one and all we need to do is restructure the operations for the entity. We need to look at what is the optimum level for power generation as well as distribution. I can bet that 30 percent of the workers at Zesco are paid for doing nothing and may be ill qualified for their roles.
I will be very mad with any leader that will propose to privatise Zesco.
All we need to do is restructure that company and let it have an autonomous board that should not be appointed by politicians.
I am sorry to say that most of the times, politicians are the culprits of the failed public enterprises worldwide because their decisions are often based on how they will maintain or get into power at the expense of the sustainability of a venture.
By the way, do we know that the Libyan government is the one that bought Zamtel under its Lapgreen Corporation?
The late Libyan leader wasn’t more qualified than the people that decided to privatise Zamtel; but he had more passion to see poverty alleviated for his people by creating opportunities and wealth for them. Let me end by saying ZNBC is a going concern, it can do better than what we are seeing today.
Governments should create enabling environments for its citizens to do business and it should run at least 30 percent of the businesses especially the strategic ones.
Therefore, public enterprises are not devils but mostly it is because of poor management and undue external influence due to greed. The null hypothesis has been ably argued, not so? Get back to work and good day!
This author is an agribusiness practitioner.

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